Myth, History, Language, and Reality


The following is a rant I posted on twitter maybe a month ago. I wrote it through the day in transit and at work, so it might be a bit disjointed, but still valid.


As someone with a history degree, I can tell you there is a lot of history that is false, especially the farther back you go. But just because accepted historical narratives don’t fit your theories doesn’t mean the truth is being covered up.

Not every dog fart is a ghost, not every odd historical event is proof of a conspiracy.

One of the major problems with history is the Jericho problem. For a long time, and it still continues, historians/archeologists have been unwilling to date findings of human civilization earlier than the Wall of Jericho.

It hasn’t mattered the personal belief of people involved, but the University/museum/organization they work for. Disrupting Biblical narratives would have major social and financial repercussions for these groups.

How many organizations funded by Christians and cultural Christian would feel safe pointing out bullshit?

I actually studied Ancient Near East history, taught by a very devout Christian, and we even used the Tanakh / Old Testament as a historical document. But it was stressed that nothing before David could be proven, and much before him proven completely false.

After David it’s a fascinating text on the development of a unified identity and religion.

I don’t say this to be anti-Christian/Jewish, I’m certain all historical religious narratives are built on falsehoods somewhere. That doesn’t detract from their “deeper” realities.

A myth doesn’t have to be real to be true, but don’t let the myth interfere with the historical reality.

A great example of myths being important, but false and needing to be ignored historically would be the origins of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. This was actually a unit in my one course. The Twelve Tribes were united by their common ancestry, descendants of Jacob.

Jacob had two wives, between the two of them he had twelve sons (and one daughter who gets ignored cause, you know, woman). Each son managed to become a patriarch of a large tribe. You can divide the tribes between two geological features in ancient Israel.

One group of tribes lived in the lower land of Israel, and the other group lived more in the mountainous regions. Because of the limitations of the soil/climate the tribes in the lowlands raised cows, while the mountain tribes raised goats and sheep.

Jacob’s wives were Rachel and Leah. Rachel means ewe, or female sheep, and Leah means cow (in a colloquial sense, technically it means more like tired, but used like we might say dog-tired in English). If you guessed that Leah’s sons raised cows and Rachel’s raised goats, correct, have a cookie.

The myth was created to be symbolic, it was never meant as a literal history, the names alone make that clear. It doesn’t mean it’s not a very important myth, but when taken literally it has interfered by having historians trying to prove it, rather than investigate it. It was a myth that helped unite a disparate and often warring group, it’s a good and positive myth, it’s also not history.

Oddly (this is more observational supposition than researched datum) it seems like historically Christians have taken it more literally than Jewish people have (though there was a move towards more literal takes in the last 200 years).

In my class, there was a discussion about how Jewish people have been taking apart all of their holy stories, turning them inside out, and reinterpreting them pretty much since forever, but to Christians it is all INFALLIBLE AND UNQUESTIONABLE WORD OF GOD. Just look at the Talmud and the continually growing body of Jewish mythology, and commentary.

A Jewish friend of mine in university said she hated talking with Christians about Tanakh/Old Testament because A) They didn’t understand the cultural stuff (Judaism is a lot more than just Christianity without a Christ), and B) They took it way too literally, and she was from a fairly Orthodox sect too. When a Jewish woman who won’t wear pants in the 21st century says someone is taking the Old Testament too literally and seriously, that’s saying something.

I would suggest that at least part of this (and there are multiple reasons) is because the fact it’s obvious in Hebrew, but not translated. That detail is lost in translation and changes everything. Hence Christians (mostly not knowing Hebrew) would read it more like history than symbol. After all, someone familiar with contemporaneous Hebrew would know exactly what Rachel and Leah meant, but to English speakers, they’re just nice names for women.

Another interesting insight of symbolism via the names is Benjamin. While the tribes were divided between cows and goats, more seriously/importantly the tribes were of two (at the time) distinct groups the Tribes of Israel and Tribes of Judah.

(As a historical document, if you pull apart the Tanakh/Old Testament it’s interesting to see the back and force between Israel and Judah as enemies and united. It really is three texts, an Israelite text, Judean text, and a united text. If you know what you’re looking for you can really see the seams.)

They’re all called the Tribes of Israel now, but at the time they were distinct groups. The Tribes of Israel were to the north, and Judah to the south.

Relevant sidenote: Ancient Israelite directions viewed East as Up (like we do with North in the Northern Hemisphere). So Up was East, Down was West, Right was South and Left was North.

(This is actually something that appeared in several Near Eastern cultures, and even continued in some areas at least into the 8th century, possibly longer because it was relevant to the rise of Islam, but that’s where my research ended)

Of the Twelve Tribes there was the Tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin was one of the tribes of Israel proper (as opposed to united with Judah). Ben means Son, Jamin (Yamim) means Right, and implied to mean “right hand.” Son of the right hand fits for his role in Jacob’s life, but…

If Jamin(Yamim) means right, which implies south as well…Guess where the tribe of the Son of the South lived? That’s right, the southernmost area controlled by the tribes of Israel. How lucky the Benjamin, Son of the South, just happened to live in the south, cause if Benjamin was up north it would be silly…

Which is again, not to in anyway discount from the myths, or the religions that draw from it, but myth isn’t history, but sadly when taken literally it interferes with history/archaeology as people try to fit reality to the myth, rather than investigate the reality of the myth.

Another great name as symbol comes from the New Testament. During Christ’s crucifixion Matthew originally (Greek, not English) referred to Pilate’s other prisoner as “Jesus Barabbas.” Some translations keep his first name, many drop it for just Barabbas though.

What a coincidence that Jesus Christ would be on trial beside Jesus Barabbas. Pilate asks who to release “Jesus Barabbas” or “Jesus Christ/Messiah.” Up until that point Jesus was pretty much always “of Nazarus” or “Son of Joseph.”

Christ means (loosely/contextually) anointed one, or saviour. Messiah, while it now means the same, originally more meant holy king. Several of leaders in the Tanakh were called messiahs, even non-Jewish ones. But that’s an aside really.

Bar is the Aramaic form of Ben, meaning Son of. Abbas mean God, more correctly “Father”. (Jesus even calls YHWH Abbas in the Garden) So Jesus Barabbas is “Jesus, Son of the Father.”

So if this event isn’t historical (which I’d say it isn’t) the trial isn’t between two men, but two perspectives on this man. Is he Jesus the Messiah or Son of the Father? Or plainly put Jesus a holy man, or Jesus the divine Son of YHWH. A holy man? Those were dime a dozen. To quote Pontius Pilate “You Jews produce messiahs by the sackful!” Okay, that’s from Jesus Christ Superstar, but it’s not incorrect. Holy men were a plenty and wandered the area. On the other hand the divine Son of YHWH? The prophesied one? That’s getting into blasphemy.

When viewing it as a trial between the Roman powers, the Jewish population, and two beliefs about the nature of Jesus it’s a completely different story, which is (in my opinion) far more interesting and meaningful than a literal trial and release of a prisoner.

(In case anyone thinks I’m being unfair or picky with data, I’ll freely admit that my belief in the historical Buddha isn’t on the most solid ground either, but it’s more acceptable to Buddhists that the Buddha is a mythic figure or example, than Jesus as myth is to many Christians.)

The creation of history is a fascinating and strange process, and we get things wrong sometimes, do the best we can with fragmented info, and sadly sometimes cover up what doesn’t seem to fit into the picture.

A great short book that reflects it well is The Motel of the Mysteries. Basic premise is the US falls (and the rest of the world presumably), and centuries later an archaeology team finds a motel and reconstructs American civilization from what they find.

The book is silly and funny…But not totally wrong. Especially their interpretation of tv’s and toilets. As a historian I find it more insightful and funny than wrong or insulting. We do the best we can, but that doesn’t always mean much.

Religion isn’t history. Religion is important to history. Religion can contain and influence history, but religion isn’t history, and it damages our understanding of our past and ourselves when we take it as history and ignore the facts.

My professor who specialized in Mesopotamian history once showed me a picture of an odd item and said “If historians don’t know what something is then it’s of religious importance… and this is of great religious importance.”


Wednesday Webshare: Smashing the Wall of Jericho, History, and Buddhist Humour


We have found a large underground city, perhaps the largest ever recovered. I love hearing about these discoveries for multiple reasons, and a big part is it helps unsettle our historical narrative. Also I’m of the camp that believes our estimates for these cities are far too conservative. I might sound a bit like dear Gordon (but I’m in good company if I do) but our history is more complex than we realize, and when you look at the mythologies of this area, the idea of ancient people living underground opens up some fascinating possibilities.

Humanity was more advanced in a lot of our early received history than most people realize. Just recently it came to light that Babylonian astronomers had developed a pre-cursor to calculus. Their spiritual pursuit of their gods led them to understand the sky and chart the world in ways most modern historians don’t realize. Part out of a notion of prestige and lineage, we like to trace great accomplishments to people “like us” so the Western view of world history often ignores how often our great ideas and accomplishments were done somewhere else first. Another part of it is it’s comforting to assume we’re much more advanced than those who came before us, but in reality we don’t want to see where we came from.

There is also a huge Judeo-Christinizing influence on history. I’ve seen it colourfully referred to as the Wall of Jericho. (I should pause here to remind readers, or inform newer readers, that I’m not just a person babbling about history, I have an Honours Bachelor degree in history from one of the best history departments in North America, and part of my early degree focused on Ancient Near East History. So I’m a slightly qualified person babbling about history) Basically there is a lot of pushback against historically dating things outside of the Biblical time line. Even though most people think Creationism is a joke, it’s hard academically to get consensus that something involving human civilization happened before the year 4000 BCE. Slowly we’re pushing that line, but each time we do, the Biblical timeline shifts too. Most notably our dating of the walls of Jericho. Despite the fact that we can disprove essentially every part of the history in the Bible before King David, not that we lack proof, we have proof its wrong.

That’s part of a bigger rant, but it’s why I love Gobekli Tepe, it’s undeniably the oldest monument we’ve discovered, and due to evidence around it, it’s impossible to shortchange its 12,000 year history. We’re still studying, but we’re restoring it too. I sincerely hope as we study it we’ll really break the Wall of Jericho and realize humanity’s history is longer and more interesting that people generally think.

Another step in uncovering our histories is the discovery of a large body of text written in the Etruscan language. As we work through it we may begin to learn more about this surprisingly powerful culture that we actually know little about, and since the inscription is from a temple we might learn more about their gods.

In more recent times regarding recovering lost history, the occult books of Heinrich Himmler have been found. Apparently 13,000 books. While I’m sure many of them are run of the mill, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nazis found some more unique books in their rampage, and I can’t wait to hear more about what was uncovered.

Switching gears:

There is a new blog, that I cannot recommend enough, but I suggest folks head over to The Perfumed Skull. It’s a blog on anthropology, esotericism, and a large dose of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not a casual read, the entries are long, dense, and academic, but if you’re looking for a more critical historical/anthropological take, this is definitely worth following.

I first “met” the author when he linked to my post on tulpas in his great piece (on another site) analyzing the role and change of the tulpa idea in Western thought. And was polite enough to call my tone merely exasperated.

Following Buddhism in an irreverent way, facebook memories reminded me of my Buddha Name Shindan Maker I made a few years back, thanks to Polyphanes pushing me. At the time I was reading the Avatamsaka Sutra, which is not a Buddhist text I suggest anyone read unless it’s a really important part of your path. Part of the book is essentially a catalogue of all the Buddhas across different “world oceans.” They all have fantastic and bizarre names, that follow a simple pattern, so I put in the common words, and let this program spit out names that are hilariously close to the original. I, in case you were wondering, will be the Buddha Adamantine Light of Razorlike Compassion. As someone who repeatedly says “I will shank you with loving-kindness” razorlike compassion is very suiting.

Speaking of irreverent Buddhism, spirit houses are a common fixture in Thai Buddhist cultures. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) many cats assume any boxlike structure is for them. So here is an adorable collection of cats cramming themselves in spirit houses

Lastly, after the big Japanese tsunami lots of taxi drivers reported giving rides to ghosts. While it’s hard to trace the validity of these stories, it’s interesting to me that it happened en masse. If it was just a single driver, it would be easy to say it’s made up or imagined, but a bit harder with several reporting similar events.

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